Thief’s Luck – some system noodling

I’ve always wanted to do a Thief-style game, and a potential mechanic for it popped into my head while playing Mansions of Madness.

It’s based around a standard deck of playing cards. The four suits correspond to situations: Hearts are emotional/social, Clubs are violence/force, Spades are the environment, and Diamonds are intellect/puzzles. A character has four stats, ranging from 3 to 7, and a number of skills -things like Lockpicking, Archery, Hiding… or whatever the player comes up with (player-defined skills).

Here’s the gimmick: when you try to do something, the GM sets a difficulty number to beat. Say you’re trying to pick a lock – that’s a Spades challenge. Your running total starts equal to your matching stat.¬†Each round, you flip the top card of the deck. If it’s a Spade, you add its value to your total.

Depending on the circumstances, the GM may nominate one, two or even three of the other suits as hazards*. If the card matches one of those suits, you’re hindered by some new problem, and the card’s value is subtracted from your total**. For example, flip a Club (violence), and a guard comes around the corner. Flip a Heart (emotion), and you might suddenly doubt your skills, or be distracted by greedily looting a nearby jewelled candlestick. Flip a Diamond, and you discover the lock’s trapped. If your total drops to 0 or less, you fail the challenge and bad stuff happens***.

If you’ve got a skill that fits the current challenge, then you can use it to add non-matching cards to your total, but doing so spends a point from the appropriate stat. Say you’re in the middle of a sword fight (so you need Clubs), and you flip a big Heart. Normally, that would be deducted from your running total – maybe your foe goes into a battle frenzy, maybe you panic, maybe you can’t bring yourself to murder someone, maybe you recognise your lover behind your foe’s mask – but if you’ve got the Swordfighting skill, you can reduce your Hearts skill by 1 to add that Heart to your total.

The nice thing about the mechanic is that it throws in lots of complications and unexpected twists. You don’t just miss an attack if you don’t draw a Club – a flock of startled pigeons flies in front of you, you sudden realise that your target’s a member of a rival crime family and you’ll be targeted for retribution if you kill him, he spots your sniper’s nest in the cathedral tower and ducks into cover.

It feels intuitively like a nice little system, assuming I can get the numbers right. I’m not normally a fan of playing cards as a mechanic, but it suits this setup. Your thoughts?

*: Flipped cards in a suit that’s neither hazardous nor beneficial still do something, I’m just not sure what. Probably hang around as a complication that doesn’t currently impede your task.

**: What about Ace/Jack/Queen/King? I’m tempted to tie them to factions and groups within the game. So, drawing a Jack means the Thieves’ Guild are involved. An Ace represents the city watch, and it’s high or low depending on whether or not they’re on alert or not. Queen and King…not sure yet.

***: Drawing from Hamlet’s Hit Points, I’m thinking of giving a bonus card to a character who loses a contest that can be used in the next struggle.

  1. This mechanic would work well, perhaps better, for resolving group actions such as combat. Each player can claim a suit based on character class or other determinant. Go around the table, ask each player for his or her goal in this scene, and then start flipping cards. Each time a player’s suit comes up, that player can advance the action somehow. If players who share a suit dispute what should happen next, they each play a card from their hand of the same suit; high card decides.

    If only one player character is involved in the scene, the other players are still participants in an abstract way. When another player’s suit is flipped, that player can then EITHER take the card OR further the acting character’s action. (Or substitute some other dilemma of a similar juicy kind.)

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